Lou Rosenfeld is in the ideas business. He’s a writer himself, and a speaker and trainer, and now he’s created a distinctive approach to publishing that’s based around ideas – and the community engaged with them – rather than books per se.
The publishing company he created – Rosenfeld Media – supports the ‘three-legged stool’ of the ideas business, which Lou himself discovered as an author:
‘I found that I really couldn’t succeed with writing if I wasn’t presenting, and I couldn’t succeed with presenting if I wasn’t teaching, and couldn’t succeed with teaching if I wasn’t writing so it’s a virtuous circle.’
Rosenfeld Media is format-agnostic, and devotes an extraordinary amount of time and energy to supporting its authors as a co-collaborator and focus for the community.
‘I still think we’re reinventing publishing,’ he says. ‘I’m not even sure the word publish means anything like it did 10 or 15 years ago. It shouldn’t really. I felt like the traditional publishing model, which to my mind emphasised quantity over quantity, is really broken. It’s not anything I really want to be affiliated with so we’ve very studiously avoided that approach and taken a very different one.’
Find out more, including his top advice to authors, in this fascinating interview.
Rosenfeld Media: rosenfeldmedia.com
Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to The Extraordinary Business Book Club. Today I’m here with Lou Rosenfeld, who is an information architect or, as he puts it in his Twitter biography, an information therapist, which I love. Lou helped create the information architecture industry and he co-authored its definitive text, Information Architecture For the World Wide Web, which is also known as The Polar Bear Book (if you haven’t seen it, you won’t know what that means) back in 1998: it’s now in its fourth edition. He also co-founded the Information Architecture Institute and the IA Summit and has consulted for numerous Fortune 500 corporations. Now he focuses on growing Rosenfeld Media, one of the most trusted sources for user experience expertise and that’s what we’re going to be focusing on today. Welcome to The Extraordinary Business Book Club, Lou.
Louis Rosenfeld: Thanks so much, Alison, glad to be here.
Alison Jones: It’s a real thrill for me to have you on the show actually because that book, Information Architecture For the World Wide Web, I absolutely loved when it came out back in 1998. I was a reference book editor at the time and a proper geek and had grandiose ideas that I was actually an information architect. Of course it was the one that launched that iconic O’Reilly list; really distinctive style, wasn’t it?
Louis Rosenfeld: Well, I mean the animal books had been around for quite a while. I think what was kind of interesting in terms of the O’Reilly catalogue was that this was really the first book you could call a design book. In fact, the dirty rumour is that Tim O’Reilly had to have his arm twisted just a little bit to publish this one. I think he’s been pretty happy with the results in hindsight.
Alison Jones: Yeah, he’s probably quite all right with it now…
Louis Rosenfeld: Yeah and they’re certainly doing a lot of design-related titles now so I’m glad to see that.
Alison Jones: I know it’s a long time ago now, the first edition of that, but what role did all that serve in sort of taking you from where you were then to where you are now?
Louis Rosenfeld: Well, anything that’s kind of new, a new practice, a new field, a new community, has a variety of crystallising or galvanising moments. I think for the IA community, I’m afraid to call it a field, I’m not sure we’re quite that, I think that was something that really helped. It came in at the right time for people to start having really good conversations about information problems. Before that there were many people who were coming from different backgrounds, using different vocabularies. Maybe they were graphic designers. Maybe they were librarians. Maybe they were usability people, developers and so on. What we did with the book, whether intentionally or not, I don’t recall, is we gave people a common vocabulary so that they could actually talk together and solve really hard problems together regarding information. That’s half the battle right there is getting people to the point that they can collaborate and have a good conversation about a challenge. I think the book did that for people.
It also, like it sounds like for you as well, it gave you a label for what you were doing or how you identified yourself and it helped you find other people probably who felt the same way and shared that interest. When you have those moments, and often books support them and supply them, it really does move things forward. I’ve seen it with other books as well. There’s these defining titles that really suddenly make people go, Ah ha! That’s what it’s called. That’s what I do. Let me find other people like me and do even more.”
Alison Jones: Yeah, I love that idea that it becomes a kind of crystallising node that, “Ah, yes, okay so we can all rally to this new thing. We know what it is and we know that, that’s what we do, even though we haven’t articulated it before.” I think it’s something that authors do occasionally, is actually sort of create the word for a thing that everybody knew but nobody had quite labelled. Suddenly once you have a label for it, the conversation can just move forward in leaps and bounds. It’s almost like when Bannister broke the 4-minute mile. Suddenly everybody was doing it.
Louis Rosenfeld: Right.
Alison Jones: You create the thing and now that we have the language, we can think about it more articulately.
Louis Rosenfeld: Well, and that’s something I try to do as a publisher now, just to get back to your original question. I’m constantly encouraging authors to not try to answer all the important questions but to help people ask the important questions in a way that they can do with other people and to have better conversations. It’s not so much about the answers but it’s about the questions that other people, the readers ideally can answer on their own.
Alison Jones: Yes, that’s a nice way of putting it. Let’s talk about Rosenfeld Media. What was it that made you take that step from writer to publisher? I know there was a lot in between. I do get that but what was your vision when you founded the company because it is very distinctive, isn’t it?
Louis Rosenfeld: Well, when I started, I had this, you know like a lot of entrepreneurs, you get an idea and it feels almost feverish like it catches you or you catch it. It’s like an illness. It starts to consume you and I tried to stuff it back down and I couldn’t. It just seemed like, “Oh my God, I’ve got to do this. We really need to have more user experience books for this field, this community, whatever we call it. It’s starting to really come together and I want to be there and I want to help people do better work by giving them really good expertise.” I actually talked to Tim O’Reilly about it a little bit. He is one of my role models and he said, “Yep, a lot of publishers are simply frustrated authors.” I was feeling that as well.
Alison Jones: So true.
Louis Rosenfeld: I actually explored doing this series with some established publishing houses and there was all risk and not that much reward. I had already been through starting a couple business in the past so I figured, “Well, I guess this is the next one I’ll do and rather than work so hard for someone else, I might as well work hard for myself.” I still think we’re reinventing publishing. I’m not even sure the word publish means anything like it did 10 or 15 years ago. It shouldn’t really. I felt like the traditional publishing model, which to my mind emphasised quantity over quantity, is really broken. It’s not anything I really want to be affiliated with so we’ve very studiously avoided that approach and taken a very different one. I can’t say I’m ready to retire but I can look back on the last 11 or so years we’ve been doing this and feel good about the work. I think the quality is there and hopefully through persistence we’ll continue to grow and at some point maybe I will retire and not in a destitute fashion.
Alison Jones: You’ve kept it squarely focused on that user experience niche, haven’t you? Have you been tempted to go into adjacent fields or is that actually the whole strength of it is that focus on your community?
Louis Rosenfeld: Well, the beauty is that user experience is a moving target. It’s a synthetic field, if it were, that pulls together and is constantly seeking out expertise from other areas-
Alison Jones: Yeah.
Louis Rosenfeld: From established areas. I’m always interested in synthesis, especially when it gets different people working together in productive ways. I don’t have to feel limited by UX. I actually see UX constantly evolving. What we publish now is certainly different than what we were doing five or 10 years ago. The DNA’s there. There’s a story to tell that transition but it’s not the same. The other thing is that one of the fun things you get to do as a publisher in a new space, like user experience, is see yourself as defining the field. There are many efforts to define a new field but how often do we get the opportunity to do so by spec’ing out an editorial agenda?
In some respects, if we say a book is about UX, it’s hard to argue with that. We’re not going to just pull something out of thin air and have a laugh on the community but we can certainly see what we do as a defining exercise in a way that is really hard to do if you’re just- I mean, you can try to define a field by simply inventing a definition and definitions are fine but they don’t get you very far. But a living, growing, flexible editorial agenda, to me is a much better yardstick for what a field is about.
Alison Jones: I like that. It comes back to brand as well, doesn’t it, you know what you’re known for, like if Faber publish you, it is literary fiction by definition?
Louis Rosenfeld: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Alison Jones: It’s a nice interesting take on what a publisher does, scoping the field almost and showing the parameters.
Louis Rosenfeld: Exactly and actually we’re moving away from using UX in our branding because we’re starting to see that UX is becoming almost a regular thing now. You can go get a Master’s Degree in it or some sort of certification. There are many people working in the field that haven’t really been through its growth and development. It’s sort of a fully formed thing for them. That’s great but I don’t necessarily want to be in a field that’s baked in and locked down so we’re starting to stretch our wings a bit. I don’t know what we’re going to call it but I can promise you it’s going to be focused on humanization.
Alison Jones: Humanization?
Louis Rosenfeld: On humanising the technologies and really the products and services that people need to live lives that are worth living. I think we need more of that in the world. The technology always runs amok and certainly far ahead of the rest of us and our abilities to humanize those technologies. That’s really what UX is about in many respects. Whether you call it UX or not, I’m not too concerned. It’s just an expression. It’s just a term. I’d rather be focused on the outcome.
Alison Jones: Yeah, and it struck me as well, looking at the site and how you work, your conception of UX, of user experience, it’s broader than simply the subject of the books that you publish. It’s way broader than just being a sort of tech topic. It’s a sort of golden thread that runs right through your company from the way that you designed your website to the touchpoints with your customers. Tell me, I mean obviously you’re living and breathing UX all the time. How does that change the way that you do business?
Louis Rosenfeld: Well, we actually do quite a bit of user research to develop our products and our services. I just sent out a mailing today to a few thousand people saying, “We’re designing our next conference programme and we’d like your help,” and we’ve got hundreds of responses that are shaping our next conferences programme. That’s a big business for us. It’s probably bigger than our publishing side at this point but it’s not just for the conferences. We do user research to help us understand whom we’re publishing our books for and we do user research for things like how to develop our book content.
We work very closely with our authors to develop programmes for each book that seek to both involve lots of people, whether they’re experts or people who represent the ultimate readership, in ways that not only bring back knowledge from those people, in other words that’s customer research for the books while they’re being written, but the benefit of that is that those ultimate customers, people who are responding to the research studies, feel like they have a sense of stake in the outcome. They feel like the book is theirs in a way. For that reason, they’re often more interested not only in buying it but promoting it once it’s out because they helped in some way.
Alison Jones: Right.
Louis Rosenfeld: It’s partly theirs. That’s a huge, huge thing that I think many publishers are missing. They just, they would rather go develop products as cheaply and quickly as they possibly can and get it and many others out to market, and throw a bunch of them against the wall, and hopefully one or two stick and that’s what carries you for the next quarter. I just don’t really like to do things that way. I’d rather spend more time in a thoughtful approach to developing our products and services, whether they be books, conferences, or what have you.
Alison Jones: It’s funny, I just put a blog up on BookMachine today. I spoke to Guy Kawasaki recently, the episode that’s just been broadcast and Guy obviously takes the approach of writing with a crowd basically. He puts his table of contents up. He puts the whole draft of the book up and he’s had publishers in particular say to him, “Well, we don’t like that idea because we’re going to lose sales because people have got access to the thing.”
Louis Rosenfeld: Wrong.
Alison Jones: Right! What he’s doing is getting thousands of people who now have a stake in this book and who feel it’s their book and who are going to buy it because they want the finished thing and they’re going to tell all their friends about it.
Louis Rosenfeld: Well listen, the same thing goes to things like DRM. When we started publishing, our first book came out I guess it was 2007, we always, always, always included a digital version of the book. Back then it was just pdf and always DRM free. I remember people were telling me I was going to be really sorry for doing that but frankly I think ultimately those people who steal your books are not going to buy them anyway and some of them will probably share them with people who will buy them so it’s a form of marketing. I think if anything it ends up leading to more sales, not fewer. It’s like the old Grateful Dead approach, right? Give the information away in some respect because you build interest in the ideas, which in turn have more strength and value for even more people leading, hopefully often, to ourselves.
Alison Jones: Yeah, and it’s so true, isn’t it, the biggest risk for most books is not lack of effective anti-piracy measures. It’s just the fact that it’s invisible and nobody cares about it because nobody knows about it and they don’t feel they have a connection to it.
Louis Rosenfeld: Exactly. Can you create the connection to this piece of information, these ideas, ideally before they’re even finalised, before they’re even brought through? One of the things I think is also really kind of handled in an all too formulaic way by some publishers is the tech review process. I think that needs to be done in a very handcrafted way with a lot of thought given to who could help with tech review. Whom do they represent? Are they proxies or surrogates for important perspectives or audiences and what kind of feedback do you want from tech reviewers? I know that there are certain models. They make sense in certain cases but listen, I have, in some sense, the luxury of handcrafting these approaches because we only do 5 or ten books a year.
Alison Jones: Yeah, and when you say tech review, do you mean like peer review, sending it out for review for people to comment on the-
Louis Rosenfeld: Right but I wouldn’t necessarily call it peers. Sometimes they’re not peers. Sometimes they may be people who are not especially knowledgeable about the topic and they may represent the readership-
Alison Jones: Right.
Louis Rosenfeld: In a way that a peer, who is probably a subject matter expert, would not.
Alison Jones: Yes, and more like beta readers almost?
Louis Rosenfeld: Exactly.
Alison Jones: Yeah, and the range of Rosenfeld Media is much wider than books. You mentioned conferences before. I love that phrase. You describe yourself as format agnostic. You’ve got books. You also run courses. You run events. Tell me about the thinking behind that. How do those things work together for you?
Louis Rosenfeld: Well, first of all I think you need to be format agnostic. I think another traditional publishing mistake is to see yourself as being in the business of books. That’s great for the pre-internet era but we’re not in that era any longer. People see someone speak and are interested in their ideas. They may want to purchase that person’s book. I’d like to be there if that’s one of my authors speaking. Similarly, if they read that book they may love that author’s ideas so much that they want to bring them to their company to teach a course. I’d like to be there to help with that as well. They may attend a course and they want even more and they spread the word around that way. I can tell you that in my prior career, which was more as an author/expert, I saw that three-legged stool in action. I found that I really couldn’t succeed with writing if I wasn’t presenting, and I couldn’t succeed with presenting if I wasn’t teaching, and couldn’t succeed with teaching if I wasn’t writing so it’s a virtuous circle.
I’ve tried to create our company as just enough infrastructure to support those three areas. It’s not easy but I think not only does it open up a lot of opportunities, it forces you to keep thinking about all the new ones that come your way. It seems about once or twice a year we’re sitting there evaluating all the video-based training options that are out there and trying to make sense of those because that’s a really important format that’s up and coming. If we’re not thinking hard about that, we’re really missing the boat as a publisher.
Alison Jones: For your authors, do they tend to be equally good… I guess this is a leading question because the answer’s clearly going to be no but tell me, if you’re a good writer it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good speaker. If you’re a good speaker it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good teacher. How do you support your authors with that three-legged stool that you talked about?
Louis Rosenfeld: A lot of it is peer support. Tomorrow at this time I’ll be facilitating a call with people we represent as authors, and experts who teach courses, and so forth. We talk every month about what the state of the industry is and what does it mean for people with this expertise. We talk about things like, has anyone worked with a speaking coach because I could really use one right now. I’ve heard that question many times so I happen to have resources to help there. Has anyone got stuck with writing a certain type of content and how do you get through that writer’s block? Well, we’ve been through that, all of us, and we support each other. One of the nice things, when you have a small catalogue and a small business overall is you can invest in those relationships pretty heavily and pull people together in ways where they really can serve as a community and be helpful to each other.
We also try to find authors that have strengths in all three areas but it’s not always possible. Sometimes we take chances. Sometimes we work with people that are new in terms of writing, and teaching, and presenting. They might have done something that makes them especially promising or work on a topic area that’s promising. You have to take chances sometimes. I’m really frustrated every time I see a publisher that will only publish people that have been published. I think that’s a short term way of thinking and ultimately you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
Alison Jones: I really love that idea that as a publisher as well, you curate that conversation so you’re building networks between your authors, all of whom are in the same field, obviously, so these are valuable networks for them. You’re supporting them in the areas that you know they need to build their skills in. That seems to me, it’s a real reason for a publisher to exist, isn’t it?
Louis Rosenfeld: I think so. I think if you’re just in the business of doing things more efficiently, more cheaply, and only thinking about the supply chain, well there’s room for that. Actually we’ve been doing a lot of work in terms of becoming more efficient in the last year or two but ultimately we’re in the idea business. Ideas are not the same thing as automobiles, or cellular phones, or anything like that. You have to actually give them a special kind of treatment and they don’t respond well simply to efficiency. If you’re in the business of efficiency and making money, I don’t know that that’s really the way to go about it. I don’t think you need to be a publisher. I don’t think you really need to be trafficking in ideas if that’s what you’re about.
Alison Jones: It’s so true isn’t it? Publishers that have thought that they were in books have always been in ideas. Books just happen to be the way that they were communicated in one point in time.
Louis Rosenfeld: Right and it’s a format. It’s a great format. It’s not going away. I’m really relieved to hear that but it’s still a format and you can’t be- I think you have to set aside your personal love and maybe your emotional connection to that format in order to be successful in terms of being in the idea business. Some things shouldn’t be books. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work with them.
Alison Jones: Yeah. No, I agree and of course an idea has many forms and many different ways it can communicate so they all can reinforce each other as well so I think having this… Was it William Zinsser that had that great quote about writing, speaking, and thinking; all the same process?
Louis Rosenfeld: I’m not familiar with it but it sounds certainly up my alley.
Alison Jones: Yeah, I love that. If there’s people listening to this who are kind of munging through their first book at the moment and just in the slough of despond, what’s your best bit of advice for a struggling first time business book author?
Louis Rosenfeld: Well, I’d say a couple things. The main one is you are a learner. You are struggling because you don’t know everything and that’s good. One of the things that other people, like readers, often appreciate is the transparency of your process, the fact that you are a learner just like they are a learner. I feel that many business authors and authors in general assume they need to be authoritative and come off as the final word. I think when you let other people in, especially during the writing process, you build not only ultimate authority, because you’ve learned together and you’ve facilitated that learning, but along the way you build empathy and you build relationships with people who are going to be your book’s biggest supporters both during the writing and creation of the content but also afterwards in terms of marketing and promotion.
I’ll just mention one of my authors who’s just been amazing at this, Dave Grey. We published his book, Liminal Thinking, in September of last year, of 2016. He went on a journey when he was writing his book. He started on actually a different topic, found that as he interviewed dozens of people about that topic that he hit a wall. A number of the people, the experts that he talked to, said, “You know what, Dave? You don’t know what you’re talking about. Go back to the drawing board.” He spent a month in a funk, went back to the drawing board and he came up with an even better idea. People were along for that journey. He was doing this in a public way.
Long story short, people were reading early drafts of his book that he made available in a limited way in Medium. He got great feedback there. It’s a great tech review process. He wanted that feedback, made it a better book. He got a lot of questions answered in places like Facebook and built up a following so that by the time the book made it into, well, the book made it into Amazon and it was available for pre-order. Then after whatever it was, a month or so, it launched. At that point it had something like 40 reviews in Amazon and all 5-stars. I mean what a nice start-
Alison Jones: Yeah.
Louis Rosenfeld: For a book to be at that level before it even comes out. It’s all because he was willing to be vulnerable, willing to share, willing to ask questions, and willing to build connections with people along the way. It didn’t make him less of an expert, less intelligent, less of an authority. It actually made him even more interesting and more compelling as a guide to the material.
Alison Jones: That is superb advice. I love that. I love that particular story as well and just what a great start for your Amazon algorithms as well. It’s really the kickstart…
Louis Rosenfeld: Absolutely.
Alison Jones: That’s great.
Louis Rosenfeld: A very nice start; very nice start.
Alison Jones: Thank you. Fantastic advice. Now I always ask my guests on the show to recommend somebody and as you know you came this way as well: Who would you recommend that I ask onto the show? Is there somebody with something interesting to say about the business of business books or writing in general?
Louis Rosenfeld: I know a lot of really interesting people. I keep asking them questions and they’ve been, for the most part, really generous with me but I’m going to tag one person in the interest of time and simplicity and that’s Jeffrey Eisenberg. That’s Jeffrey E-I-S-E-N-B-E-R-G and he Tweets @jeffreygroks, G-R-O-K-S. He’s based in Austin, Texas in the states and he and his brother, Bryan, are really interesting people who’ve been successful with books and seem to know about every interesting angle, non-traditional angle in business book publishing. I’ve learned a lot from talking to Jeffrey over the recent couple years. If you want to know more about Jeffrey, besides the Twitter address you could go to his brother’s website, bryaneisenberg.com. That’s Bryan with a Y-
Alison Jones: Yeah.
Louis Rosenfeld: /about/jeffrey-eisenberg and he’s a great guy and I think you should talk to him.
Alison Jones: That sounds fascinating and I don’t know him at all. I love it when I get a completely out-of-the-blue recommendation. Brilliant. Thank you. Well, if people want to find out more about you and more about Rosenfeld Media and your whole UX community, where should they go?
Louis Rosenfeld: Well, rosenfeldmedia.com and I’m really easy to reach by email, firstname.lastname@example.org. I Tweet pretty regularly; @louisrosenfeld, L-O-U-I-S R-0-S-E-N-F-E-L-D. @rosenfeldmedia is a pretty good place in terms of following for general UX information. We amplify our authors. We retweet a lot of the interesting things that they’re doing. I think that’s why we have about 80,000 followers. That’s a good start and gosh, Alison, this has been a lot of fun. I really appreciate the opportunity to be on your show.
Alison Jones: Well, thank you. It’s been absolutely fascinating. We could quite easily go on for another hour here but let’s not. Let’s stop it there. I always try and keep this down to roughly a sort of slow 3 1/2 mile run. That’s my kind of rule of thumb. If you’re coming to the end of your run now people, don’t worry, we’re finishing off. Thank you so much, Lou. That was fascinating.
Louis Rosenfeld: I really appreciate it. Thanks again.